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Can social networking give a leg-up to the poor?

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Por Frederick Noronha para APCNews

GOA, India, 30 March 2009

An affluent-looking sari-clad Indian woman, who obviously knew her economics and technology, explained how toeholdindia.com worked. This was quite a few years back, before Web2.0 or anything like it was amidst us. toeholdindia.com is a website — it was built in pre-Web 2.0 times — that takes the footwear created by Indian artisans, seeks to update these, and try and garner a global market.

So does it work? Can the internet and specifically Web 2.0 actually help the poor in tackle their pressing problems? Or is a large part just hype?

[Wikipedia explains the term “Web 2.0” to refer to a “perceived second generation of web development and design, that aims to facilitate communication, secure information sharing, interoperability, and collaboration on the World Wide Web.” But most people understand it more simply as interactive social-networking sites and tools where the users actually provide the information like Facebook, YouTube and others.]

Take some examples that have drawn notice recently:

  • As part of a research conducted by GINKS in Ghana, a web-based tool (Ekumfi Atakwaa Information Kiosk) was developed to stream videos on agricultural practices online for women farmers in a small community. GINKS stands for the Ghana Information and Knowledge Sharing Network.
  • The 2008 British film directed by Danny Boyle which won eight Academy Awards has achieved global fame. But few would know that behind ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was a novel by an Indian diplomat that was inspired)#Inspirations by an experiment in a Delhi slum. Young children taught themselves about the use of computers without external teachers.

Social networking sites “against poverty”

The internet has been seen as at best middle-class dominated space, thanks to the prohibitive cost of getting online especially in the ‘developing’ world. Are things about to change?

Now even mainstream Web 2.0 social networking sites like Facebook show signs of taking up anti-poverty issues. It’s not clear though how effective, and how much of a real world impact, such campaigns could have. Good intentions notwithstanding.

Groups on Facebook promising to take “fight global poverty” say they will donate $1 for each person that joins. At last count, 357,040 members had signed-up.

Another Facebook group is focused on World Poverty Day (Oct 17). While it aims to hit a million members, it had touched just one-twentieth of that size.

Indian electrical engineer Mohit Garg told APCNews that the Web 2.0 initiatives he liked the best were Kiva (which lets you lend to a specific entrepreneur in the ‘developing’ world to get out of poverty); MicroPlace (investing in people’s livelihoods, not charity); RangDe.org (where borrowers met social investors); dhanaX (social lending); and Drishteehaat (fair trade).

Comments Edward Addo-Dankwa, in an online post: “The issues of whether Web 2.0 is a new development or a repackaged set of already existing tools is not relevant to many people in the category of the world’s poor. To these people, the most important thing is whether these tools can really help alleviate their poverty….I think we should be exploring the possibilities of using these tools to effectively raise the livelihoods of the poor farmers and traders who are in the majority.”

Are disadvantaged groups using Web 2.0?

Congolese APC member AZUR Development uses Web 2.0 tools — such as a blog and a photosharing site — for its work for empowerment of indigenous women and their families in Congo. The blog gives information on indigenous people called pygmies who are marginalised in Congo, and talks about activities undertaken and call for actions. “It has proved to be a good advocacy tool and helped us mobilise supporters and raise funds,” says AZUR Development’s Blanche Zissi

South African Ron Wertlen says: “The Siyakhula Living Lab is a user-centric experimental network being developed by the Universities of Fort Hare and Rhodes in the former Transkei which is practically examining the use of ICTs to assist development. A large part of the focus is Web 2.0 software development, as Web 2.0 is the ideal user-centric mode of internet use.”

“Facebook, for instance, has been taken up by some of the [refugee] communities we have worked with regardless of our involvement. In particular the Karen from Burma…,” says APC.au’s Andrew Garton in Australia.

But while micro-projects might make for impressive showcasing, the real question is just this: how much of an impact can Web 2.0 really have on the 21st century scandal called poverty?

In places like India — where one-third of the global poor now reside — it’s clear that more affluent and urban sections are the first and most adept use the internet, including Web 2.0 tools.

For instance, one issue which grew big out of a campaign was when urban women challenged fundamentalists groups trying to beat up those women entering pubs. A protest campaign coordinated on Facebook and through blogs — which involved sending ‘pink panties’ to the fundamentalist group — made headlines globally. While makes one wonder whether far-more serious issues like poverty in our times would every get such attention.

Steve Eskow, joining a debate on the issue via the BytesForAll network recently, said “If … you mean using “Web 2.0 tools” to directly influence the poor themselves, the answer to your question may be ‘no’ [the poor are not using Web 2.0 themselves]. You could help emphasise the point here that those interested in poverty work might do better to start with the “situation” rather than the ‘technology’.”

Dream on. You never know what turns into reality

Says Edward Cherlin: “I propose that we create a network of networks encompassing a billion children and their teachers, families and friends—nearly all of the poor people in the world, and most of the rich. They can network for educational, social, business, and other purposes. I leave those choices to them.”

Other links

Librarian Chick, a collection of links to the free resources for those with big brains and small pocketbooks

Overstock.com is Afghanistan’s largest private employer

Earth Treasury, Digital Textbook process

Business Fights Poverty: A professional network for all those passionate about fighting world poverty through the power of good business

Photo by Hudaster, used with permission

(FIN/2009)

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